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Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Jason Epstein

As editor-publisher to some of the 20th-century's greatest writers (Edmund Wilson, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Jacobs) as well as the virtual inventor of the trade paperback (meaning the "quality" type, as opposed to the drugstore mass-market), Jason Epstein … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: Jason Epstein
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
1 review about Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present,...

What the Web Does to Old Fashioned Publishing!

  • Aug 13, 2001
Like the hedgehog of legend, Jason Epstein in this book has one big idea: The Internet, he says, changes everything! All the rest of this book is commentary, memoir and historical anecdote recalled from a lifetime of experience in the hermetically sealed world of New York publishing.

In fact, Mr. Epstein has written an interesting if only moderately useful book about the changes he has witnessed in the publishing arena, a book which, regrettably, does not offer much beyond an earlier essay he presented on-line about these same issues, although it is fleshed out here by the anecdotal descriptions of his personal experiences in the field. His basic thesis is that the publishing industry, by rights, ought to be a small scale business, but has grown, over time, into an unpromising corporate behemoth which cannot, in the end, sustain itself. However, the advent of the Internet should bring this chapter of the business to a resounding close, he suggests, as authors discover how to reach readers directly and, thereby, marginalize publishers.

What, after all, do publishers do, he asks? They make books available to the public by investing in titles through a selection and editing process and then by financing the books' production (editing, layout/design, printing and binding), distribution (warehousing, linking with distributors and re-sellers) and promotion (advertising, networking with the review community and sales outreach to retailers). This is not very much, in the end, says Mr. Epstein, given the powers conferred upon authors through the Web.

Thanks to modern e-publishing (on-line electronic publication and print-on-demand), authors can now do much of this themselves through on-line service providers at very minimal cost. The existence of on-line sales outlets such as amazon and bn.com (which have seen their share of book purchases grow from an early 1-2% to a more recently reported 6%) makes all this feasible since buyers cannot easily distinguish between self-published works which are well presented and their more commercially published cousins at the on-line sites. So, says Mr. Epstein, the business he has spent his life in is about to change radically . . . and for the better.

Unfortunately, his own book does not go much beyond this basic point, aside from the interesting life experiences in the publishing world he has to recount. And so I was somewhat disappointed by it. I came to it hoping to learn more about the publishing business and how to circumvent it, having been a rejected author for the better part of my professional life.

(In the interests of full disclosure I should say, at this point, that I am one of those "empowered" authors Mr. Epstein seems to be alluding to who has found an alternative to the closed world of "big" publishing through the exigencies of the Internet. Unable to place my first novel with a bona fide commercial publisher, I went the POD -- print-on-demand -- route to generally good reviews. But I have found that this means of publishing falls well-short of expectations as I still lack the means to connect with the big-time review community, which seems to have a prejudice against the self-published, or to promote my book on a scale which the traditional publishing world can offer.)

So I was looking for more in Epstein's book, hoping to learn something I did not already know and gain insight into how I might parlay my foray into on-line based self-publishing into something bigger. But Epstein doesn't deliver that. Instead he offers only a few insights and generalities about changes in the offing.

And yet, perhaps that's the best one can do, as this is a new and growing field and none of us can really foretell the future, not even a man of Mr. Epstein's substantial experience. At the least, I think his basic insight is correct, that the Internet does indeed alter the present landscape dramatically. Still, as noted, I was left a trifle disappointed at the book's end (which came rather quickly, as it's a very short book). Aside from learning a bit about Epstein's own contributions to publishing past, and seeing reiterated in words my own experiences with on-line publishing, and learning that Epstein doesn't hold out much hope for outfits like amazon either (he proposes, instead, that amazon become a broker to publishers and authors, taking a small fee for linking readers with the books they want, through a publishers' consortium, each time a sale is rung up), he doesn't have much that is new to tell us.

And, if I may be picky for a moment, I was a little put off by the editing/proofing of the book which I expected more from, given its professional provenance. I counted at least three typos (including two "thats", a common enough error, and the use of the word "identify" when "identity" was meant, among them). Worse Mr. Epstein got his reference to Albert Payson Terhune wrong! Terhune was famous for his books about collie dogs but he did not write any Lassie books, contrary to what Mr. Epstein reports. That was a fellow named Knight. Terhune wrote LAD, A DOG and numerous subsequent works based on the generations of Lad. A one-note theme, to be sure, but he kept me reading in my youth and was probably the first writer to inspire me to try my own luck in the publishing arena. Unfortunately, I did not have the same good luck as he did in finding a publishing outlet, until the advent of the Internet which, as Mr. Epstein suggests, may well, and hopefully will, change everything.

author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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